NEW YORK — Sonny Fortune, a saxophonist whose incandescent improvisations made him an essential member of bands led by some of jazz’s most illustrious figures as well as a respected bandleader, died Thursday in New York. He was 79.
His son, Duane, confirmed the death, at Mount Sinai Hospital, and said the cause was complications of a stroke.
Mr. Fortune was known for his mix of urgency and grace, and his stalwart command — not just of the alto saxophone, his primary instrument, but also of the flute, clarinet, and soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones. He had his biggest effect as a sideman with the likes of Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Mongo Santamaria.
But from early in his career he also proved himself to be a gifted leader whose original music comfortably corralled many of the sounds of 1970s New York: straight-ahead jazz, jittery funk fusion, the pan-African avant-garde, and salsa dura (hard salsa).
“The thing that I love about it is that the music itself has no boundaries,” Mr. Fortune told the website All About Jazz in 2006. “It expands itself as far as your imagination can go.”
Mr. Fortune, who grew up in Philadelphia, taught himself to play the saxophone at 18. He eventually came into contact with John Coltrane, then a hometown hero on the rise. He considered Coltrane a mentor and would become seen as a carrier of his torch.
Mr. Fortune moved to New York in 1967 and landed a spot in Jones’s ensemble, partly thanks to Coltrane’s recommendation (Jones had been the drummer in Coltrane’s classic quartet). That July, the group was on the bandstand at Pookie’s Pub in Lower Manhattan the night Coltrane died, a moment of unexpected loss in the jazz world.
In the coming years, Mr. Fortune also spent time with Santamaria, saxophonist Frank Foster, vocalist Leon Thomas and drummer Buddy Rich. For 2 ½ years he played with Tyner, the pianist, another foundational member of Coltrane’s quartet, and recorded with him on a string of well-received albums.
Mr. Fortune was offered a job with Miles Davis in the early ’70s but turned him down. In 1974, having left Tyner’s band, he got another call from Davis, and this time he agreed. Over a year with Davis, he made his mark on a number of influential fusion albums, including “Get Up With It” and “Agharta,” some of the darkest, most gnarled, and most gloriously irreverent music in Davis’s catalog.
Mr. Fortune began his solo career in 1974 with the release of “Long Before Our Mothers Cried,” a widely varied collection of original compositions. (He had co-led a soul-jazz record with the organist Stan Hunter in 1965.) It included a robust horn section executing Mr. Fortune’s arrangements; a corps of percussionists playing West African and Afro-Cuban rhythms on one track; and a springy rhythm section that included pianist Stanley Cowell, whose Strata-East label released the album.
He released two more albums in a similar creative vein on the Horizon label and then signed with Atlantic, for whom he released three albums, mostly with higher production values and a funkier sound.
Cornelius Lawrence Fortune was born in Philadelphia on May 19, 1939, to Cornelius and Margaret (Washington) Fortune. His father drove an oil delivery truck, and his mother was a homemaker. After picking up the saxophone late in his teens, he took classes at the Granoff School of Music, which Coltrane had attended.
In addition to his son, he leaves two grandchildren and one great-grandson. A daughter, Tina Fortune, died in 2005. His only marriage ended in divorce.
Mr. Fortune’s recording career slowed down in the 1980s, but he continued to perform frequently, particularly with Jones’s groups and as the saxophonist in the Coltrane Legacy Band, which featured Jones, Tyner, and bassist Reggie Workman. Toward the end of his life, he also played with 4 Generations of Miles, a group of Davis alumni.
Mr. Fortune signed with Blue Note Records in the mid-1990s amid a resurgence in commercial appetite for acoustic jazz.
He released three albums on the label, some of the most straight-ahead efforts of his career, including “Four in One” (1994), a tribute to Thelonious Monk.
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Fortune ran a small record label, Sound Reason. He used it to rerelease his Blue Note albums, which had gone out of print, and to put out new material. He also performed often in a duo with Rashied Ali, the free-jazz drummer who had been one of Coltrane’s most consistent collaborators at the end of his life.
The two of them would typically play a full set of far-ranging improvisation, all based around a single jazz standard. Reviewing one such performance in 2005 for The New York Times, Ben Ratliff wrote: “The age of superheroics in jazz is mostly behind us; musicians have found many other, more temperate strategies to hold an audience’s attention. But every time Sonny Fortune and Rashied Ali play duets it’s as if they’ve brought their capes and masks.”